Our natural impulse when thinking about future amphibious operations is to look to the past. Yet the reality is that no good point of comparison for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan exists.
By Ian Easton
May 26, 2021
Every year on June 6, the United States and its NATO allies commemorate the anniversary of D-Day, the daring amphibious assault on France’s Normandy region that helped bring down Nazism and liberated Western Europe. Today, commentators frequently draw parallels between D-Day and an imagined Chinese invasion of Taiwan. But such comparisons are wrong. Here’s why.
Emotion Versus Logic
Most observers view the Normandy landings as a glorious moment in human history. The very thought of D-Day evokes strong positive emotions, especially for citizens in the Western democracies that were involved. It’s easy to see, then, why likening D-Day to the invasion of democratic Taiwan could be problematic. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda notwithstanding, Beijing’s campaign would be about spreading tyranny, not liberating oppressed peoples.
That’s why I like to use the term Zero Day (Z-Day) to refer to the notional date of a future Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Z-Day is the term Winston Churchill used when talking about a potential Nazi invasion of England, an operation Adolf Hitler planned to launch in 1940, but aborted after he lost the battle for air supremacy over the English Channel. While all historical metaphors are imperfect, this one seems fitting, even hopeful. For England, Z-Day never actually arrived.
But if a future Z-Day did come to Taiwan’s shores, it wouldn’t be like the Normandy landings. Our natural impulse when thinking about future amphibious operations is to look to the past. Yet the reality of this scenario is that no good point of comparison exists. Nothing even remotely similar has occurred in history.
It’s easy to forget that World War II’s grandest amphibious operation was actually a relatively simple affair in terms of the battlespace. The D-Day landings occurred in rural France along a relatively flat, 80-kilometer beachfront. The harrowing bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach made famous by the Hollywood movie “Saving Private Ryan” were only between 100 and 170 feet high. Few civilians lived in the area, which had been extensively bombed prior to the assaults.
Normandy’s beaches were heavily fortified, but lightly garrisoned. They were defended by around 50,000 troops under German command. To defeat them, the Allies employed over 6,000 ships and over 1,000 aircraft, which together landed approximately 155,000 troops on D-Day, including 24,000 by air.
Now think of a very different battlefield. Taiwan is a rugged, heavily urbanized nation of 23.6 million people. The country of Taiwan (also known as the Republic of China) is made up of over 100 islands, most too tiny to see on the map. Many of Taiwan’s outer islands bristle with missiles, rockets, and artillery guns. Their granite hills have been honeycombed with tunnels and bunker systems.
The main island of Taiwan is 394 kilometers long and 144 kilometers across at its widest point. It has 258 peaks over 3,000 meters in elevation. The tallest, Yushan, or “Jade Mountain,” is just under 4,000 meters high.
Unlike Normandy, the coastal terrain here is a defender’s dream come true. Taiwan has only 14 small invasion beaches, and they are bordered by cliffs and urban jungles. Linkou Beach near Taipei provides an illustrative example. Towering directly over the beach is Guanyin Mountain (615 meters). On its right flank is the Linkou Plateau (250 meters), and to its left is Yangming Mountain (1,094 meters). Structures made of steel-reinforced concrete blanket the surrounding valleys. Taiwan gets hits by typhoons and earthquakes all the time, so each building and bridge is designed to withstand severe buffeting.
This extreme geography is densely garrisoned by armed defenders. In wartime, Taiwan could mobilize a counter-invasion force of at least 450,000 troops, and probably far more. While Taiwan’s standing military is only around 190,000 strong, it has a large reserve force comprised primarily of recent conscripts with basic training. In 2020, Taiwan’s then defense minister estimated that 260,000 reservists could be mobilized in a worst-case scenario to augment active-duty personnel. This appears to be a conservative estimate.
Over 2 million young Taiwanese men are in the military’s reserve system, along with a large number of registered government personnel and contractors. Taiwan’s all-out defense strategy encompasses police officers, firefighters, airline personnel, bulldozer operators, construction workers, truck drivers, bus drivers, fishing boat crews, doctors, nurses, and many others. By law, pretty much anyone with a useful wartime skill could be pressed into national service.
It is not public information how many guns Taiwan has stockpiled for its army, marine, and military police reservists. Nor is it clear whether Taiwan’s unpopular and poorly-resourced reserve system could effectively mobilize and use a significant number of them. Much would depend on early warning intelligence, and the will of Taiwan’s president and her cabinet to act with alacrity. Democracies are often reluctant to declare national emergencies and institute martial law until the enemy invasion starts. This might be why the former defense minister pessimistically assumed he would only be able to mobilize around 15 percent of the military’s total reserve force.
Were it to occur, the battle for Taiwan would involve other complexities that are vital but squishy, meaning they cannot be satisfactorily quantified. It would be the first country-on-country war where both attacker and defender had modern, long range missiles in their arsenals capable of cracking open ships and devastating land targets with precision from hundreds of kilometers away. No one actually knows what such a fight would look like because it’s never happened before.
Both sides would have advanced cyber weapons, electronic warfare suites, smart mines, and drone swarms that have never been tested in real-world combat. Both would have satellites and at least some ability to attack satellites. Both would have economic leverage to use and the ability to cripple the other’s economy.
Both would have large numbers of its citizens living in the other’s territory, a certain but unknown number of whom are saboteurs and spies (and some of those double agents). Both would have the fearful option of using weapons of mass destruction to disperse biological, chemical, and radioactive agents against the other. And both might apply more exotic weapons, such as directed energy weapons and hypersonic missiles.
The most critical question, of course, is what the United States would do. It seems logical to assume the White House would send aid to Taiwan. Whether or not the president would order U.S. forces to defend Taiwan is currently unknown. Nonetheless, according to the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. military must plan on defending Taiwan and prepare accordingly.
Unlike the U.S. military, the PLA has not seen combat since 1979. As a result, nobody serving today in China has any combat experience except for a handful of geriatric generals.Equally important, the Chinese military does not train in realistic, highly complex environments.These two facts call into question whether or not the PLA could actually pull off a complex invasion operation successfully.If the U.S. came to Taiwan’s defense, few experts would give China good odds.
Some things we can count on, or at least estimate with the help of computers. The quantifiable elements of the PLA invasion operation would be mindboggling. Millions of armed forces in uniform would be mobilized in China, including soldiers, sailors, airmen, rocketeers, marines, cyber warriors, armed police, reservists, ground militia, and maritime militia. It seems likely that somewhere between 1 and 2 million combat troops would actually have to cross the Taiwan Strait, which is 128 kilometers across at its narrowest point and 410 kilometers at its widest opening.
PLA troop numbers, of course, are highly speculative “best” guesses, which depend entirely on assumptions. In theory, the PLA might land as few as 300,000 to 400,000 soldiers, for example if the Taiwanese president was killed or captured prior to Z-Day and armed resistance crumbled. On the other hand, if the Taiwanese government survived and mobilized everything under its power in a timely fashion, the PLA might have to send over 2 million troops to Taiwan, including paramilitaries such as the People’s Armed Police and the Militia of China.
Why so many? Commanders planning offensive operations typically want a 3-to-1 superiority over the defender. If the terrain is unfavorable, they might want a 5-to-1 ratio (and sometimes more). Assuming Taiwan had 450,000 defenders, the PLA general in charge would therefore want to have at least 1.35 million men, but probably more like 2.25 million. Obviously, this is a simplistic formula. But without access to top secret Chinese military studies and plans, a logical estimate is better than the alternative.
If the PLA ground force was a million or more men, then we might expect an armada of thousands or even tens of thousands of ships to deliver them. The vast majority of these ships would not be from the PLA Navy. Vessels like tugs, oilers, barges, ferries, fishing boats, semi-submersible platforms, container carriers, and heavy roll-on/roll-off cargo ships would be mobilized. According to Chinese military doctrine, many ships would be deployed as decoys, conducting feints to distract attention away from the main assault.
For the PLA, enormous ship numbers are now attainable. The CCP’s military-civil fusion strategy has been gearing up for just such an operation. China’s civilian fleets are vast, and every day more hulls are being retrofitted to support a future military campaign against Taiwan.
For Beijing to have reasonable prospects of victory, the PLA would have to move thousands of tanks, artillery guns, armored personnel vehicles, and rocket launchers across with the troops. Mountains of equipment and lakes of fuel would have to cross with them. In addition to ships, thousands of transport planes and helicopters would be involved in the mammoth lift operation.
Over 90 million CCP members would be supporting the war effort, along with the industrial might of a nation of 1.3 billion people. China’s Marxist-Leninist system is uniquely capable of extracting private resources for the state’s use. According to Xi Jinping, one of the CCP’s greatest strengths is its ability to force collective action and conduct mass campaigns, especially in times of emergency.
The invasion of Taiwan would be the supreme emergency for all sides. It would be unlike anything ever seen before. It would new, different, and unpredictable.
Much is unknowable and nothing is inevitable about a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The complexities inherent in this scenario are impossible to account for with a high degree of confidence. Even war games played on the Pentagon’s supercomputers rely on hefty inputs of human guesswork. A lot of it is pure wind. That’s the point. Wargame designers want military officers to experience defeat and talk over problems so they can do better in the real world. These are training exercises, not visits to some digital Oracle of Delphi.
Our minds are naturally drawn toward binaries, simple black and white formulas that help us make sense of the world. Consider these statements: “Beware! Z-Day is coming soon.” “Chill the hype! Z-Day will never come.” “Surrender! Taiwan is indefensible.” “Relax! Taiwan is impregnable.”
These are all false choices. The truth is that the future is unseeable; no one knows what it might bring. Sometimes the more we study something that is truly complex, the less sure we are that we understand it. And sometimes that’s a good thing.
If he is sane, Xi Jinping will think hard before ordering an attack on Taiwan and realize how quickly events could spin out of his control. But can we really trust a dictator who stands accused of genocide to act in a rational manner? That seems unwise.
There are countless things the United States and Taiwan can do in the open to raise doubts in Xi’s mind. There are even more things they can do in secret to prepare to win on Z-Day if that becomes necessary. Washington and Taipei have their work cut out for them.
The United States and Taiwan should strive toward what my colleague Mark Stokes has a dubbed a NSC (normal, stable, and constructive) relationship. The current ambiguity surrounding Washington’s policy toward Taiwan is destabilizing because it isolates Taipei, emboldens Beijing, and invites miscalculation on all sides.
Preserving peace for the long haul will require fresh thinking, political willpower, and a greater sense of vigilance. A basic knowledge of geography − and history − might also help.
How many soldiers would be needed to invade Taiwan? ›
Estimates of the number of troops needed to successfully take the island range from 400,000 to more than two million. Hundreds of transport ships would be needed, a tall order even if all of China's merchant fleet was used.How strong is Taiwan's navy? ›
China has the world's largest navy with a fleet strength of 777. Taiwan lags behind with 117.
Based on 2020 data, it concluded China has 1,040,000 troops, versus just 88,000 for Taiwan. China can support its troops with 6,300 tanks and 7,000 artillery pieces, whilst Taiwan can field 800 and 1,100 respectively.Why is Taiwan important to the US? ›
Taiwan has become an important U.S. partner in trade and investment, health, semiconductor and other critical supply chains, investment screening, science and technology, education, and advancing democratic values. The United States approach to Taiwan has remained consistent across decades and administrations.How hard would it be to invade the US? ›
Geographic feasibility. Many experts have considered the US impossible to invade because of its major industries, reliable and fast supply lines, large geographical size, geographic location, population size, and difficult regional features.Does Taiwan have nuclear weapons? ›
Currently, there is no evidence of Taiwan possessing any chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons; but nuclear weapons from the United States have been deployed in the past during periods of heightened regional tensions with China, such as during the First Taiwan Strait Crisis.Who has the strongest military in the world? ›
The United States
With a budget of $738 billion and 1,388,000 men and women in the armed forces, it boasts an awe-inspiring 6,125 nuclear weapons, 11 aircraft carriers, 68 nuclear submarines, 3,761 military aircraft, 867 attack helicopters, 6,209 tanks, and 113 warships.
United States Taiwan Defense Command.
|United States Taiwan Defense Command 美軍協防台灣司令部|
|Part of||United States Pacific Command|
|Garrison/HQ||HSA Compound, Yuanshan, Taipei|
- United States - 1,390,000.
- North Korea - 1,200,000.
- Russia - 850,000.
- Pakistan - 640,000.
- Iran - 575,000.
- South Korea - 555,000.
- Vietnam - 470,000.
- Egypt - 450,000.
2151 et seq.), or any other provision of law, Taiwan shall be treated as though it were designated a major non-NATO ally (as defined in section 644(q) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 U.S.C. 2403(q))[)]."
How strong is Taiwan air force? ›
The Taiwan Air Force has about 70,000 personnel and over 400 combat aircraft. The current inventory includes approximately 180 older F-5E/F fighters and over 100 more modern Indigenous Defense Fighters (IDFs). Fighters. The IDF has faced numerous developmental and operational problems since its inception in the 1980s.How many ground troops does USA have? ›
|Characteristic||Number of military personnel|
|Army Active Duty||481,254|
|Navy Active Duty||341,996|
|Army National Guard||336,703|
|Air Force Active Duty||329,614|
Taiwan makes 65% of the world's semiconductors and almost 90% of the advanced chips. By comparison, China produces a little over 5% while the U.S. produces approximately 10%, according to market analysts.Is the US allies with Taiwan? ›
In keeping with its China policy, the U.S. does not support de jure Taiwan independence, but it does support Taiwan's membership in appropriate international organizations, such as the World Trade Organization, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, and the Asian Development Bank, where statehood is not a ...Why is Taiwan the only chip manufacturer? ›
Why are so many semiconductors made in Taiwan? Due to its strong OEM wafer manufacturing capabilities and comprehensive industrial supply chain, Taiwan has been able to differentiate itself from its competitors and dominate the global market.Which country is impossible to conquer? ›
Without a doubt, USA the superpower is impossible to conquer by any state. Not only it is economically strong but also has a huge army.What is the most difficult country to invade? ›
The USA is the hardest country to attack because of all of these factors, in addition to having the finest military on earth. 2. Russia: Russia is the world's biggest nation. The main defense against any possible invasion is simply the topography of Russia.What is the most invaded country in the world? ›
India is sometimes pointed out as the world's most invaded country. Although the exact answer is up for debate, there are compelling reasons to believe that India may just be the most invaded country of all time. Foreigners have invaded the state over 200 times.Does Taiwan have fighter jets? ›
Taiwan unveiled its most advanced fighter jet, the missile-equipped F-16V, in a rare nighttime demonstration in the wake of China's unprecedented military drills around the island.How big is Taiwan military vs China? ›
Who owns the island of Taiwan? ›
The Chinese government in Beijing has maintained that it has jurisdiction over Taiwan and has continued to propound a one-China policy—a position that few countries in the world dispute.Who is stronger Russia or USA? ›
Russia vs US Military Strength: Comparison.
|Comparison||Russia||The United States|
|Navy - Nuclear submarines||33 Ranked 1st.||71 Ranked 1st. 2 times more than Russia|
1. The US Navy SEALs is arguably the top special operations force. Created in 1962, the Sea-Air-Land operators go through years of training and, especially after 9/11, endure an incredible operation tempo. Many foreign militaries base their special ops on the SEALs.Who is powerful US or China? ›
The United States enjoys overwhelming advantages over China. The United States outweighs China in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), technology, and military spending. China's GDP is 15 percent of global GDP, compared to 24 percent of the United States.What does the US get from Taiwan? ›
U.S. imports from Taiwan account for 2.6 percent of overall U.S. imports in 2020. The top import categories (2-digit HS) in 2020 were: electrical machinery ($19 billion), machinery ($18 billion), vehicles ($2.9 billion), iron and steel products ($2.6 billion), and plastics ($2.2 billion).Does the US have bases in Japan? ›
At present, there are seven U.S. military facilities including Yokota Air Base in Tokyo. The total area of the facilities is approximately 1,602 hectares (3,967 acres). The Yuki Communication Site was returned on July 1,2016.Is Chinese Army Strong? ›
It is also one of the fastest modernizing militaries in the world, and has been termed as a potential military superpower, with significant regional defense and rising global power projection capabilities.Who is the No 1 Army in World? ›
According to a ranking of the world's strongest militaries, the United States possesses the most potent military force. In this post, we'll provide you a detailed list of the top 10 armies in the world as of 2022.Who has strongest air force? ›
The United States of America maintains the strongest Air Force in the world by an impressive margin. As of late 2021, the United States Air Force (USAF) is composed of 5217 active aircraft, making it the largest, the most technologically advanced, and the most powerful air fleet in the world.Why is the US military so powerful? ›
The U.S. Armed Forces has significant capabilities in both defense and power projection due to its large budget, resulting in advanced and powerful technologies which enables a widespread deployment of the force around the world, including around 800 military bases outside the United States.
Is USA part of NATO? ›
At present, NATO has 30 members. In 1949, there were 12 founding members of the Alliance: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States.Who are the 29 countries in NATO? ›
The current member states of NATO are Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Montenegro, the Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, ...Is Japan a part of NATO? ›
NATO has nine “partners across the globe” or “global partners”, which the Alliance cooperates with on an individual basis. NATO's global partners include Afghanistan, Australia, Colombia, Iraq, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand and Pakistan.Does Taiwan have missile defense system? ›
The Sky Bow, or Tien Kung (Chinese: 天弓; pinyin: Tiān gōng), are a series of surface-to-air anti-ballistic missile and anti-aircraft defense systems developed by Taiwan. The TK-2 and TK-3 are in service with the Military of the Republic of China.Does Taiwan have its own navy? ›
|Republic of China Navy|
|Country||Republic of China|
|Allegiance||Kuomintang (to 1947)|
Taiwan's army has 460 of the M60A3 tanks, which it bought from the United States between 1995 and 2000. The tanks are no longer used by the US Army – they were phased out between 1994 and 1997 and replaced with the more powerful M1s.How big is the NATO Army? ›
Number of military personnel in NATO countries in 2021 (in 1,000s)
|Characteristic||Number of military personnel in thousands|
Overview. With the biggest defence budget on the planet, the United States of America has the strongest military in the world. The USAF (United States Air Force) is the most powerful Air Force on the planet. It is the most number of 5th generation fighter planes in the world.What is the strongest U.S. military branch? ›
As the most powerful air force in the world, the U.S. Air Force is a military branch to be reckoned with.Who has a stronger military Taiwan or China? ›
Compared to Taiwan's 741 aircraft, China's military possesses a total of 3,285 warplanes. Taiwan can respond to China's 35,000 tanks with its strength of 1,110 in ground combat. In terms of self-propelled artillery, China's fleet consists of 4,120 carriers compared to Taiwan's 257, giving them a major advantage.
Can Taiwan resist Chinese invasion? ›
Taiwan has about 150,000 troops and 2.5 million reservists – and its entire national defense strategy is based on countering a Chinese invasion. Like their counterparts in Ukraine the Taiwanese would have the advantage of home turf, knowing the ground and being highly motivated to defend it.Does US have military base in Taiwan? ›
Number of U.S. soldiers stationed in Taiwan by year.
Ranked 14 of 26 for comprehensive power, with an overall score of 16.2 out of 100. Lost 0.5 points (−3% change) in overall score in 2021.Who has the best military in the world? ›
- United States - 1,390,000.
- North Korea - 1,200,000.
- Russia - 850,000.
- Pakistan - 640,000.
- Iran - 575,000.
- South Korea - 555,000.
- Vietnam - 470,000.
- Egypt - 450,000.
- China - 2.2M.
- India - 1.5M.
- United States - 1.4M.
- North Korea - 1.3M.
- Russia - 1M.
- Pakistan - 654K.
- Iran - 610K.
- South Korea - 599K.
China has approximately 1,500 fighters in its arsenal, and Taiwan has nearly 400 jets, including aging F-5s and Mirage 2000s, locally-made F-CK-1s, and US-supplied F-16s.Who recognizes Taiwan as a country? ›
As of April, 13 countries—Belize, Haiti, Vatican City, Honduras, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Paraguay, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tuvalu and Guatemala—recognize Taiwan as an independent country, according to World Population Review.Did China Own Taiwan? ›
Taiwan is declared a province of the Qing Empire. Following defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), the Qing government signs the Treaty of Shimonoseki, by which it cedes sovereignty over Taiwan to Japan, which rules the island until 1945.Does Japan support Taiwan? ›
After the Japan–PRC Joint Communiqué in 1972, Japan no longer recognizes the Republic of China as the sole official government of China. However, Japan has maintained non-governmental, working-level relations with Taiwan.What is the largest US military base in the world? ›
Topping the list for the world's largest military base is in Fort Bragg. This is located in the United State's North Carolina.
What does the US get from Taiwan? ›
U.S. imports from Taiwan account for 2.6 percent of overall U.S. imports in 2020. The top import categories (2-digit HS) in 2020 were: electrical machinery ($19 billion), machinery ($18 billion), vehicles ($2.9 billion), iron and steel products ($2.6 billion), and plastics ($2.2 billion).How big is Taiwan military vs China? ›
The economy of Taiwan is a highly developed market economy. It is the 8th largest in Asia and 18th-largest in the world by purchasing power parity, allowing Taiwan to be included in the advanced economies group by the International Monetary Fund. It is gauged in the high-income economies group by the World Bank.What is Ukraine military rank? ›
For 2022, Ukraine is ranked 22 of 142 out of the countries considered for the annual GFP review. It holds a PwrIndx* score of 0.3266 (a score of 0.0000 is considered 'perfect'). This entry last updated on 09/10/2022.What rank is Vietnam in military? ›
Vietnam's total military personnel is estimated at 5.48 million. Vietnam is ranked 23th out of 137 countries in the military strength ranking 2019 of US-based Global Firepower.